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Return to: 2015 Feature Stories


Jan. 13, 2015: i3 It Is Innovation

The Ultimate Untethered Audio Experience

By David Harold and Alexandru Voica

When Fleetwood Mac harmonized, "I want to be with you everywhere," they might have been predicting the way we are now listening to music. Some users have music on portable devices and others stream music from service providers or upload their own music into the cloud. Digital music is everywhere. And just as music has lost its fixed home, the way we play music is also changing.

In consumer electronics, we are familiar with the concept of the connected home as more products in living rooms, bedrooms and kitchens connect to the Internet and communicate with each other. We increasingly have ubiquitous connectivity in our homes. And that will quickly extend to our audio systems.

Audio systems are perhaps the biggest generator of countless inputs, remotes, interfaces—and way too many wires. CEA research shows that demand for wireless audio devices is at an all-time high: in a recent study on U.S. consumer trends, nearly half of consumers who don't own a wireless audio system say they are interested in purchasing one.

Given the positive consumer reception and encouraging predictions for wireless audio adoption, how do we navigate the jargon, evaluate opportunities and look at the players who are making a difference in the wireless technology industry?

Cutting the Cord

For a time, convenience was a key factor with audio—small digital files that did not fill portable devices too quickly and small headphones that delivered convenience over quality.

Consumers—liberated by cheaper memory and the ability to store music in the cloud—are embracing higher quality music files to get the most out of those studio-quality headphones and better speaker systems. Gone are the days of ripping CDs to create a library of low bitrate MP3s.

The promise of better sound quality, real scalability and little to no cable management are compelling reasons for consumers to go wireless. If you don't have to cable-connect your tablet or laptop to the speakers, they go from being a burden to being a pleasure.

Balancing these trends while delivering these key advantages can be challenging. Some vendors rely on existing home wiring to eliminate unnecessary connections, while others create private mesh networks to communicate between devices. These solutions often limit fl exibility and reduce quality so many companies are seeking to use established standards that consumers know and trust: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi.

While Bluetooth has a huge installed base and is very cost-effective to implement, it limits bandwidth, does not scale well and works best in point-to-point connections (e.g. headphones or single speaker docks). To build high-quality, wireless audio streaming systems that implement multi-room or multi-channel technologies, your best bet is to integrate traditional Wi-Fi.

Wi-Fi is synonymous with 802.11, a connectivity standard developed by IEEE that ticks all the boxes needed by wireless audio: speed, reliability, scalability, consumer familiarity and popularity. But products such as wireless speakers require very tight synchronization between each device in order to faithfully reproduce the dynamics of the audio environment. This is a significant technical challenge, especially when devices are connected wirelessly.

Introducing the Band

Existing solutions tackle synchronization by using proprietary technologies or implementing software timing methods. These algorithms introduce several issues; proprietary technologies prevent mass adoption and software techniques lack in performance and quality.

Designing optimal solutions for wireless audio must start at the IP level. For example, Imagination recently introduced a unique, patented solution called Caskeid that exploits timing signals intrinsic to the existing Wi-Fi infrastructure in order to guarantee audio devices are synchronized. The beauty of this approach means that wireless speakers are immune from latency within the network.

Several chip makers are looking to capitalize on the demand for wireless speakers. One is Frontier Silicon, which has recently announced the Roma platform, an advanced synchronized audio module designed for multi-room applications. Combining Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in a single solution, Roma enables faster time to market for devices in a variety of form factors and is built around a powerful audio processor.

In an app-dominated world, audio systems are not a pure hardware play, building intuitive and user-friendly software is equally important. OEMs must create rich interfaces for accessing premium music services, local content and Internet radio, as well as designing easy control mechanisms for the multi-room playback environment.

Some manufacturers already deliver an easy-to-use wireless music experience from device to app—Pure Jongo and PEAQ Munet Smart are two recent examples. The Jongo wireless multi-room family from Pure is built around simplicity and elegance. After connecting their speakers to Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, consumers can stream music synchronously from any device (laptop, smartphone or tablet) using any music app or music streaming service (Pure Connect, Pandora, Rdio, Deezer or Spotify) or indeed stream any audio they desire from their laptop or PC.

Onkyo is working on a next-generation wireless music streaming system to support e-onkyo, the most successful high-quality audio download platform in Japan. Meridian Audio, one of the world's leaders in digital sound and high-quality audio reproduction, is working to optimize its lossless stereo and surround sound codecs for the wireless audio streaming environment.

The bottom line is that the manufacturing chain is ready to create fully wireless audio systems en masse. Even better, content providers are keeping on top of demand, partly motivated by the growth in high-quality audio player uptake and the rapid rollout of HD audio services (HDtracks, e-onkyo, etc.). 7digital initially offered B2B digital music services and built download stores for record labels, brands and other retailers. Later on, the company launched a direct-to-consumer service and grew to have the broadest reach of global digital music rights in the world, powering services for companies such as Acer, BlackBerry, HP, HTC, Microsoft, Samsung, Sonos, T-Mobile US and Toshiba.

Just like any developing market, the wireless audio industry faces its own challenges but the most pervasive impediments are related to market specifics. For example, consumers in Japan typically avoid digital purchases if given an alternative, while remote territories still rely on slower connections for Internet access, which makes accessing HD audio difficult.

Some users still prefer analog playback, but there are simple workarounds for those who don't want to let go of their vinyl record collection just yet. Consumers can purchase small adapters that plug into existing analog Hi-Fi sound systems, connecting them to Wi-Fi for easy multi-room listening.

The Grand Finale

Wireless technology is sparking a revolution in the audio market and triggering important growth across the globe. The potential behind wireless speakers goes beyond the connected home. Industry experts see wireless technology being deployed in other applications such as defense and automotive.

To be successful, fully wireless sound systems need to be simple to use and consistently better than their wired counterparts. Companies must also create compelling content that is easy to access and affordable, creating stickiness for consumers who want to switch quickly and never look back.

The key to rapid adoption is the creation of synergies between IP designers, hardware vendors, software developers and OEMs. This transparent ecosystem model has worked extremely well for mobile and is based on a win-win partnership that allows companies to innovate, differentiate and deliver the ultimate untethered audio experience.

David Harold is senior director of marketing communications and Alexandru Voica is technology PR executive for Imagination Technologies Group plc.

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